Like all the best adventures in life, the direction of my career has been rather random and partially the result of well-meaning but ill-informed advice. At school I had a strong interest in global climate change, as I had been fascinated by a 1974 book by Nigel Calder ‘The Weather Machine and the Threat of Ice’. Calder reported the links between solar influences and ice ages, and predicted a thrilling scenario for schoolboys - the imminent return of ice sheets down to the English Channel. I asked my physics teachers how I could study climatology at university, and was advised that the closest I could get was meteorology, which was mainly mathematical modelling, but I couldn’t possibly expect a career or any funding to study climate change...
I had an interest in botany as well, dating from my primary school wild flower collection, but was told that the only good jobs for botanists were at Kew, and they were few and far between, so it was a waste of time hoping to get a job there. It appeared that a career in applied rather than pure botany would have better job prospects, so while unimaginative friends went off to Oxford to study medicine, and my parents raised their eyebrows, I headed off to the University of Aberdeen in NE Scotland to study forestry. We were shunted around almost every other department, picking up any knowledge or skill that could be vaguely relevant to growing trees and managing forests, including some taxonomy, and also some meteorology. My school teachers were right, though, the meteorology lecturer knew nothing about climate change.
After graduation in 1980 I worked initially for a private forestry company on the Scottish West Coast, but competition for forestry jobs was getting tough in a recession, and I soon found myself without a job. This was partially because I ruffled feathers when I did not want to plant Sitka Spruce everywhere right up to the river banks, or to lie to investers who were being promised Yield Class 16 everywhere, even when Lodgepole Pine was the only tree that would realistically grow. Therefore, like so many foresters before me, I ended up packing my bags and going abroad to find somewhere with more trees. I applied to Voluntary Service Overseas, and they said I could go to Nepal, but would I mind working with bamboos? Who cares what you are planting if you can go to the Himalayas for 2 years?
VSO Nepal 1981-1984
In 1981 I investigated the few bamboos in cultivation in the UK at that time, visiting the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and Kew, and trained in development theory with VSO. I arrived in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal with my ice axe on my rucksack, wondering why it was so hot. I joined the ODA-funded Forestry Research Project, to investigate the local subtropical bamboos, and their potential for incorporation into ongoing forestry programs. I initially lived in a delightful village of Tibetan refugees, with Makalu on the skyline, listening to the tinkling of pony bells and the shuffling dances of the Lhomi in the night, eating tsampa for breakfast, and drinking thongpa through a bamboo straw. Life really couldn’t get much better, although we were too low for even any frost, so the ice axe was never to be used.
Rising population levels in Nepal were increasing pressures on land, necessitating more efficient use of agricultural and forestry resources, and the development of new approaches and techniques in land use and ownership. The Forestry Research Project was researching the silvicultural requirements of a range of potential forestry crops, aiming to help farmers in remote Himalayan valleys through government, NGO and private forestry operations. It was the novel idea of British forester John Wyatt-Smith to promote fodder trees and bamboos as more environmentally and user-friendly crops than pines and eucalypts. Bamboo, though important to both agriculture and forestry, which are closely linked in small self-sufficient mountain farms, had not been covered by either profession. Agriculturalists classed it as a tree, while foresters called it a grass, and consequently bamboos had been particularly neglected. I was initially based in the forestry section of an agricultural research station in Pakhribas, East Nepal, which had been established to resettle returning Gurkha soldiers. I started to study the subtropical bamboos of E Nepal from there, working mainly on identification, uses and potential propagation techniques of Bambusa and Dendrocalamus species.
This was a very exciting time to be working in Nepal. Community involvement in forest establishment and management was leading to the development of completely new approaches to forestry, land-use and community participation. NTFPs were starting to be appreciated. The causes and remedies for soil erosion and degradation were being investigated, and different uses of novel plants for purposes such as road stabilisation and soil erosion control were being developed. Moreover, bamboo taxonomy was being studied in depth in China and an international organisation dedicated to bamboo and rattan (INBAR) was being initiated. Bamboos turned out to have more of a role than anyone had expected in Nepal, and even after extending for a third year, the time with VSO ran out well before the challenges. I was working with great Nepali staff in the Government Forestry Department and in many rural development projects, and I knew they could take things much further than I could, but I still did not want to go home.
ODA Postgraduate Training Award Scheme (PTAS) 1984-1986
After 2 years had turned into 3 years with VSO, we had been able to establish which bamboos were important in E Nepal, and how the propagation of several could be incorporated into good nursery practice. Ron Kemp kindly arranged for ODA (now DFID) to support me, through their PTAS scheme, to extend the study of bamboo identification, distribution and propagation techniques to other regions of Nepal, and to develop a training program for nursery foremen from nearly all the districts in the country from the many forestry and agricultural projects.
In 1985 I was lucky enough to visit E China for an INBAR conference in Hangzhou, and took the opportunity to travel back to Nepal across China & through Tibet, also visiting Bhutan. This helped me to start to put the Nepalese bamboos into a broader regional context. It was becoming apparent that poor naming and identification was a major obstacle to any work on bamboos throughout the region, whether it was writing a guide to their recognition, selection, uses and site requirements, or recommending techniques for propagation or protection against insects.
Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen 1986-1991
Having visited the Forestry Department in Bhutan to suggest extension of my bamboo work eastwards from Nepal, I broadened the scope of my work. Andrew Bennet kindly arranged for funding from the ODA Forestry Research Program, and I established a bamboo project administered through the Forestry Department of Aberdeen University, implemented through the Forestry Departments in both Nepal and Bhutan. The aim was to expand earlier propagation and training work through the many forestry projects across both countries, but now concentrating on Bhutan. This caused some consternation in the British High Commission in Delhi, tasked with the delicate job of diplomacy with both India and Bhutan, and with the Indian authorities, who watched all foreigners in Bhutan with extreme mistrust. I hid in a back room in a forestry research department building near Thimphu, when not out and about in the bamboo from Tansen to Tashigang.
Carefully planned randomised trials of nursery-based propagation techniques were established. Tissue culture experiments were also carried out in Aberdeen, to see if in vitro multiplication was a feasible propagation technique. A further objective was the study of the identification of all the available bamboos of both countries in much more depth.
By 1991, we had developed simple vegetative propagation techniques suitable for indigenous bamboos in forestry nurseries across Nepal and Bhutan, and trained nursery workers from most districts in their use. We had collected seed of Dendrocalamus hamiltonii in West Bengal, distributed it across Nepal and Bhutan, and also raised 20,000 seedlings in a government nursery in S Bhutan, which were distributed to various government and NGO projects. Control measures for a serious insect pest were developed, as were techniques for using bamboos for roadside stabilisation on road-building projects in several parts of Nepal.
To justify the grant from ODA on its postgraduate award scheme (PTAS), and the next position as Research Fellow in the University of Aberdeen, I was meant to get a postgraduate qualification. While other PTAS students attended taught courses in Reading or Oxford universities, I had recklessly decided to go for a PhD by research alone. I had enough propagation trials underway to achieve this in theory, but I hadn’t reckoned on the goats. As the research nursery was one of the few places with a fence, it was very convenient for those living around it when they wanted to go to market. They could lift their goats inside the fence, and know that they were safe, and well-fed, while they were away...
With incomplete data from propagation trials I looked for another source of data, and decided that I would simply have to study the taxonomy of the bamboos instead. It had always been a major problem when wanting to write anything about Himalayan bamboos that their names were in such a mess. While travelling between development projects across Nepal and Bhutan, it was a wonderful opportunity to study a wide range of living bamboos in great detail, from the tropical forests along the Indian borders and into the plains of West Bengal, right up to the alpine pastures by the borders with Tibet. By the end of the project I had collected and enumerated the main bamboo species from much of the Eastern Himalayas. Classifying them by performing in-depth morphological studies and following recent developments in bamboo taxonomy in China, became the subject of the PhD thesis. A rough tally gave about 20 new taxa with maybe 14 new species and quite possibly new genera as well. Eyebrows were lifted to the heavens when a forester turned up with these wild claims and presented them to a very reluctant and sceptical supervisor in the Botany Department in Aberdeen. Publication of this information in a PhD thesis, however, was of little use to anyone, so I looked for a better way to use this new knowledge, and to disseminate the research results more effectively. Visits to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, and to the Forestry Research Program in Oxford led me to return to the UK ‘for a brief spell’ to get this published properly.
Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, 1992-94
In order to publish research findings from the Himalayan fieldwork effectively, I negotiated more funding from ODA through the Forestry Research Program, administered by the University of Oxford, for a further project from 1992 based in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. In 18 months there I improved my taxonomic skills under the kind guidance of botanists working on the Flora of Bhutan project, and others, in order to publish a revision of the bamboos of Nepal and Bhutan in a series of 3 papers in the Edinburgh Journal of Botany. I wanted to make this research even more widely available still, so I studied the new techniques of desktop publishing, and used them to combine information on field identification, propagation, distribution and uses, to write 2 small illustrated books, field guides to the bamboos of Nepal and Bhutan. These were backed up by even simpler, illustrated keys that could be distributed as laminated sheets. Having produced the publications, I found that interest in the Himalayas was waning at Edinburgh, and there was no prospect of continued employment there.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1994-2000
In 1994, after I had given a talk at Kew in 1993 on recent developments in bamboo taxonomy, Kew advertised for a short-term herbarium bamboo specialist. I became long term short term on renewed 18 mth contracts. Working in the Grasses Section of the Herbarium under Derek Clayton and Steve Renvoize, I was given responsibility for temperate bamboos, with the exception of genus Phyllostachys, which Steve retained as he had built up considerable expertise on that genus. Research Fellow Dr Soejatmi Dransfield specialized in tropical and subtropical bamboos, making important contributions, especially to those of Thailand and Madagascar. I also had responsibilities for the naming and verification of plants in the living collections in collaboration with gardens staff, especially Ray Townsend. Working with these other bamboo specialists, we re-organized the herbarium bamboo collections at Kew to follow a more modern system of generic and subtribal classification, and verified the identification of more than 70 living bamboos in the Gardens, several of which had been given rather questionable names. We developed links with bamboo taxonomists and horticulturalists from around the world, as well as the lead international bamboo research organisations, INBAR and IPGRI.
Collaboration was initiated with Chinese bamboo experts on both tropical and temperate bamboos, and fieldwork was undertaken in Yunnan Province of China. We started to revise the temperate bamboos from that Province, publishing papers in Kew Bulletin, and bringing back several horticulturally important species. In conjunction with Dr W. D. Clayton, I studied the morphology and terminology for bamboos in depth from a grass perspective, so that their characters could be incorporated into the Kew World Grass Species database.
I developed knowledge of bamboos from a much wider range of countries, and acquired further skills: databasing, cladistics, DNA extraction and new techniques of molecular investigation. An important visitor to Kew, Dr Xia Nian-He from Guangzhou stayed for a year, starting to apply molecular techniques to bamboo samples from the gardens, the herbarium, and material he brought from China. We puzzled over a curious disparity he found between tropical and temperate bamboos, with little resolution in a well separated temperate clade. In collaboration with the Jodrell Laboratory and Trinity College, Dublin, I participated in a molecular ITS & AFLP study in the genus Phyllostachys, and started to co-supervise a Trinity College PhD student, eventually developing a preliminary molecular phylogeny for Asian bamboos, which has not been radically altered by later investigations.
I tackled many chewy nomenclatural problems, and published a variety of papers and articles in books, journals and horticultural periodicals, including the bamboo account for the Flora of Bhutan.
In 1999, despite a good attempt by both the Head of Grasses and the Deputy Keeper (Monocots) to persuade management to look for funding to continue bamboo research at Kew, the post was not extended. A program of reorienting Kew’s Science in accordance with reduced grants from government and the consequences of the Convention on Biodiversity were starting to take their toll.
Independent bamboo botanist/consultant, May 2000-
Flora of China (Missouri Botanical Garden)
In May 2000, largely through the efforts of Lynn Clark, Missouri Botanical Garden very kindly offered me a co-authorship and editorial role on the English-language bamboo account for their Flora of China Project. It was slowly being written by a team of about 20 Chinese authors, under the co-ordination of Dr Li Dezhu of the Kunming Institute of Botany, with whom I had collaborated previously. This was a good opportunity to apply recent phylogenetic results, and to expand my bamboo expertise further, as Chinese bamboos represent half the world’s bamboo diversity. The work was undertaken part-time, initially as Honorary Research Associate at Kew, working on the generic accounts as they progressively arrived from China.
Missouri’s Flora of China account complemented continuing molecular investigations at Trinity College Dublin, on which I collaborated with Dr Trevor Hodkinson and his PhD students. Establishing an evidence-based phylogenetic framework for the Flora of China involved collaboration with several bamboo taxonomists from China and the Western world. Developing this classification, applying it to re-organize the Chinese bamboo flora, making necessary taxonomic changes, and making the species descriptions as concise and consistent as possible kept me well occupied, on a self-employed basis, until 2006 when the account was finished. Publication of the numerous papers that the flora work necessitated, including the molecular phylogeny, has been achieved slowly since the project funding finished.
Conservation of threatened bamboo species is an issue that has been sadly neglected by all institutions, largely through lack of information on identification and distribution. INBAR in 2000 initiated an ambitious project to quantify global bamboo resources and distribution. By combining GIS assessments of areas of forest types, held by UNEP-WCMC, with information on which bamboo species were found in each forest type gleaned from botanical literature at Kew, it was hoped that global standing volumes of bamboos could be estimated. I considered this wildly optimistic, as the data could only suggest possible habitat area, and was restricted to forest bamboos. My experience of collecting rare forest bamboos, however, suggested that the data might instead be highly valuable in quantifying remaining suitable habitat areas for the many rare or threatened forest species. I realised that the data produced approximated roughly to conservation’s ‘area of occupancy’ concept, for which threshold levels are defined for different categories of threat to plants and animals.
INBAR consequently followed up on this suggestion by funding me to help Nadia Bystriakova analyse the data from this perspective, and to collaborate on publications with UNEP-WCMC. We found that a frighteningly high proportion of bamboos had very restricted ranges of occupation indeed, making them highly vulnerable to deforestation. The result was publication of a collaborative paper in Biodiversity & Conservation, and then a report on Asian bamboo conservation published jointly by INBAR and UNEP-WCMC. That was followed by a second report from INBAR & UNEP/WCMC, which completed the study for the rest of the world. It was hoped that such a baseline study would stimulate measures to address the problem, or at least to verify the situation on the ground.
Flora of North America (Utah State University)
During this period involvement with bamboo taxonomy and horticultural activities in the US led to the suggestion by Dr Mary Barkworth of Utah State University that cultivated bamboos should be included in the grass account for the Flora of North America. Production of this account is a challenge as the introductions are from a wide range of countries, including Japan and S America. Undertaken on a shoestring budget, and without fieldwork in either N America or the countries of origin, the inclusion of bamboos in the FNA account along with other grasses was rather ambitious, and could not be completed within the time or money available. Further funding is still hoped for in order to complete the project, with the account being repackaged to start the Cultivated Bamboos section of this website.
My horticultural involvement in the US continues, as editor of the Species List for the American Bamboo Society, which annually revises names under which bamboos are sold across the US, which in UK terms is effectively a ‘Bamboo Plant Finder’. I was also on the Board of Directors of the ABS as International Director from 2003 to 2007, and I have been made an honorary life member.
Consultancies (INBAR, CABI, IFAD)
As well as contracts with INBAR in association with bamboo conservation, I produced bamboo data sheets for the Forestry Compendium of Tree Species CD-ROMs, produced by CAB International in 2001 and 2003.
In 2000 I participated in a NE India Forestry Project reconnaissance mission as a consultant for IFAD. The main emphasis of the project of the project was to be bamboo, and in conjunction with an economist and a more traditional forester, we looked at how bamboos and canes could be incorporated in activities of several government departments. The report led directly or indirectly to the initiation of subsequent bamboo development activities in NE India.
Other miscellaneous activities
Work on this website started in 2006 with a small grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust, and it continues, absorbing more and more time to both expand and keep it up to date.
I continue many publications that have been started, but postponed as real life and the need to find non-bamboo sources of bread for the family table intervened. Bamboo taxonomy is a continuing stimulation, but without any resources, also a substantial challenge.
Reviewing other people’s submitted publications on bamboo taxonomy as an anonymous reviewer, which can sometimes take as much time as writing the articles in the first place, is great fun but not in any way remunerative or contributing to my own publication list. About 5-10 papers are reviewed (or sometimes almost rewritten) each year.
Maintaining the American Bamboo Society’s Species & Sources List as Species List Editor continues, and attempting to resuscitate the dying ABS Journal is another frustrating challenge.
Advising the Royal Horticultural Society on their bamboos and attending and presenting at a Hortax conference was fun, and I was rewarded by free access to Wisley for a day.
Identifying bamboos for all and sundry around the world through this website, and through various online and informal forums also continues to absorb most of my time, and a new project has joined the long list of unpaid and unfinished work, an in-depth account of all the bamboos of India & the Himalayas in collaboration with Panjab University in Chandigarh.
All in all there is certainly still enough bamboo work out there to keep me going for several reincarnations.